Ukrainian speakers leave Donetsk amid pro-Russia surge

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Media captionPro-unity residents say they are preparing to leave the region

Ukrainian speakers in the eastern region of Donetsk have started leaving the area, fearing for their safety as pro-Russian militants tighten their grip.

The declaration on Monday by separatist leaders that their self-declared "Donetsk People's Republic" was now an independent, sovereign state which could ultimately be absorbed into Russia is likely to hasten the exodus.

"If a separate Donetsk People's Republic is founded here, I will have to leave," says Olga, a businesswoman and single mother with a young daughter.

"I won't be able to speak Ukrainian, my native language. A lot of my friends are currently selling their houses and moving to west Ukraine. People are afraid for their lives and families."

Although it is not an easy decision for her, she believes she has no choice because "freedom is the most important thing".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Pro-Russia militants stand guard at a barricade outside the regional state building in Donetsk

The fears are greatest amongst pro-Ukrainian activists who have spoken out against the ethnic Russians leading the drive to break away from Ukraine.

"Almost all my activist friends have now left," one source told the BBC whose own family are now packing up and heading west.

Makeshift prison

Their fears are well-founded. Pro-Russian militants have been filmed dragging activists into the now notorious regional government building in Donetsk city, which has been occupied by the separatists since March and has now become the headquarters of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic.

There are reports that one floor of the building is used as a makeshift prison and interrogation centre. The glass entrance doors have been covered, making it impossible to see what is happening inside.

Image caption Activists in Donetsk have declared the region a separate state and called for it to be absorbed by Russia

The divide between the majority ethnic Russian population and the Ukrainian-speaking community in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk is widening.

Sunday's unofficial referendum on independence organised by the pro-Russian separatists highlighted and exacerbated the division.

It seems very few Ukrainian-speakers took part.

"It was a joke, it was illegal and we just didn't react to it because the aim of the referendum was to break up Ukraine," said Olga.

"There was nothing in it for us."

Much-feared commander

Adding to the fears of the Ukrainian-speaking population in this region is the announcement that the leadership of the pro-Russian separatists, who control much of Donetsk, has apparently now changed.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Denis Pushulin told journalists he had handed overall command to Igor Girkin

At the news conference on Monday when the separatists declared independence, the then overall leader, Denis Pushulin was asked what his status was.

He replied he was now just one of the leaders and the main commander was Igor Girkin, also known as "Strelkov" - meaning "the gunman".

He is a much-feared separatist militia commander who is accused by the Ukrainian government and the European Union of being a Russian military intelligence officer.

Last month he was added to the EU's sanctions list.

Image copyright BC